What's The Difference Between An $8 Vitamin C Serum And A $300 Version?

Two dermatologists and a cosmetic chemist weigh in on the affordable vs. expensive products.
Iryna Veklich via Getty Images

Dermatologists on the skin care side of TikTok regularly tout the benefits of vitamin C, recommending users incorporate it into their morning routines. But the price points for vitamin C serums are wildly different — why is ReVive’s serum $300 whereas The Ordinary’s can be found for just under $8?

Is this difference nothing more than fancy marketing? Or does a higher-cost serum mean a better product?

We spoke to board-certified dermatologists Dr. Angela Casey and Dr. Jeffrey Hsu, as well as cosmetic chemist Ginger King, to find out the difference between a high-priced and a low-priced vitamin C serum and whether it’s better for consumers to invest or save when it comes to this skin care product.

What are the benefits of vitamin C in skin care?

With an ever-increasing number of influencers promoting products that promise a new wonder ingredient, it’s easy to become jaded and wonder, “Do I even need this ingredient?”

But according to dermatologists, consumers shouldn’t sleep on vitamin C.

“Vitamin C is a topical antioxidant,” said Casey, an Ohio-based dermatologist. “It has anti-inflammatory effects in the skin; helps the skin shed dull, dry skin cells and appear brighter by increasing epidermal turnover; promotes collagen synthesis, allowing the skin to become stronger and more supple; and works in tandem with sunscreen to protect skin cells from oxidative stress.”

With the plethora of benefits vitamin C provides to the skin ― including anti-aging, brightening and collagen production ― it’s no wonder this ingredient is a darling among many dermatologists.

“Think of vitamin C as an important step in outfitting your skin to face the day ahead,” Casey said. “Topical vitamin C prepares the skin to cope with all of the pollution, inflammation, UV damage that it encounters throughout the day, and offers that extra layer of protection from environmental irritants.”

Why are some vitamin C serums so much more expensive than others?

As with any product, there’s a wide variety of factors that can affect the different price points between two vitamin C serums.

Concentrations And Quality Control

“The quality and concentration of vitamin C used in the formulation can significantly impact the price,” said Hsu, an Illinois-based dermatologist.

As the concentration of vitamin C in a serum goes up, so does the price. And while more is not necessarily better when it comes to this ingredient, consumers should make sure their serum contains enough vitamin C to be effective.

“Consumers should look for vitamin C concentrations between 10-20%,” Casey advised. “Concentrations beyond 20% really don’t offer any significant additional benefit and can be more irritating to the skin. Individuals with dry or sensitive skin should start with a lower concentration of around 10%.”

But for all of this ingredient’s benefits, there is one major downside. In its pure form ― ascorbic acid ― it’s notorious for expiring quickly. However, there are several vitamin C derivatives that prove to be more stable than pure ascorbic acid. These products can last longer on your shelf, but the trade-off is that these derivatives carry a higher price tag.

Vitamin C in its pure state should be a clear liquid. When it turns orange or brown, that’s a sign that the serum has oxidized and has lost some of its efficacy.
Anna Efetova via Getty Images
Vitamin C in its pure state should be a clear liquid. When it turns orange or brown, that’s a sign that the serum has oxidized and has lost some of its efficacy.

“Pure ascorbic acid is not stable unless in a liposome form,” King explained. ”Tetrahexyldecyl ascorbate and 3-o-ethyl-ascorbic acid are types of vitamin C that are more stable but also more expensive.”

In the long run, it may also benefit consumers to pay a little more for a serum from a company that prioritizes quality control.

“The manufacturing process and production standards can also influence the cost,” Hsu said. “Brands that prioritize rigorous quality control measures, advanced formulation techniques and use premium packaging materials may command a higher price to cover these expenses.”

Additional Ingredients And Patents

“Vitamin C becomes unstable when dissolved in water,” Casey said. “So combining vitamin C with complementary ingredients such as vitamin E, hyaluronic acid, ferulic acid and glutathione help stabilize the vitamin C, thereby maintaining its potency and efficacy.

While these complementary ingredients can allow the product to last longer, they can also make it more expensive. SkinCeuticals’ vitamin C serum, which comes in at a whopping $180, uses a patented blend of vitamins C and E and ferulic acid for improved efficacy. Patents on a particular formulation can also come with a higher price tag for consumers, as rival companies cannot replicate their own version of the product. (SkinCeuticals lists the percentages of its active ingredients like L-ascorbic acid, vitamin E and ferulic acid, but to protect its patent, it does not list the percentages of inactive ingredients, which can affect the final product.)

It may be tempting to try your hand at mixing your own SkinCeuticals dupe by using various skin care products that contain ingredients like vitamin E and ferulic acid and a vitamin C powder such as The Ordinary’s 100% L-Ascorbic Acid Powder. However, it’s best to leave it to the professionals.

“The vitamin E and ferulic acid in the SkinCeuticals serum are meant to be an anti-oxidant to protect the vitamin C in the serum rather than to provide additional skin benefits that one might see in combining various creams and lotions,” King said. “Unless SkinCeuticals specifies how much E and ferulic acid are in their serum formulations, you may not get the best benefits for anti-oxidant properties.”

Packaging And Marketing

Sometimes it is merely the cost of packaging and marketing that drive up the price of a particular serum.

“It is worth noting that certain retail brands may apply a higher markup to their products solely based on their brand name, irrespective of the actual formulation or ingredients,” Hsu said. “In some cases of retail skin care, some notable brands with a strong presence in the skin care market often invest in extensive marketing and prime product placements in big box stores, in which then they include that expense in the pricing markup.

However, the packaging for vitamin C serums isn’t always just for show. The packaging can play an important role in the efficacy and shelf-life of the product.

“Although the branding and the box in which your bottle of vitamin C arrives have no impact on the efficacy of your vitamin C serum, the bottle or tube that holds the vitamin C does,” Casey said. “Vitamin C can oxidize more rapidly when exposed to air and light, so an airtight container that is opaque or composed of dark glass is best.”

This is also why it’s important for consumers to store vitamin C serums in a dark, cool place with the top securely closed. “Vitamin C serums that are stored in the dark undergo oxidative degradation at a much slower rate compared to serums that are stored in light,” Casey said.

Is it better to pay more money for a higher-priced serum?

Considering that more expensive ingredients, packaging and formulations are generally used to create serums with extended shelf lives, is it better to pay for a more expensive vitamin C serum?

“It’s not better to invest in a more expensive serum solely based on pricing,” Hsu said. “It is highly recommended to opt for a traditional medical-grade vitamin C product, as medical-grade skin care formulations of vitamin C have extensive scientific data and clinical studies supporting their efficacy.” Medical-grade skin care products are only dispensed within dermatologists’ or medical aestheticians’ offices, Hsu said.

Rather than relying solely on the price of the product, user ratings or influencer recommendations, it’s always best for consumers to look at the cold data to get the biggest bang for their buck.

“As dermatologists, we prefer to see clinical studies that objectively evaluate the effectiveness of a vitamin C serum. Clinical evidence is the best way to compare various serums on the market,” Casey said.

However, not all data and studies are created the same. Hsu recommends that consumers consider several factors when evaluating these studies.

“Factors such as study size, measurement methods, and whether the data has undergone peer review all impact the credibility of the information,” he said. “Therefore, a thorough analysis is necessary to ensure the validity and accuracy of the data before drawing conclusions about the product’s efficacy.”

How do I know if my vitamin C serum is working?

Everyone who loves skin care is familiar with the struggle of reading the clinical studies that support a product’s efficacy, taking the plunge and buying the skin care holy grail that everyone raves about online... only to find it doesn’t work for their skin.

“There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ when it comes to vitamin C serums,” Casey said. “Just because a certain formulation worked for your friend or sister doesn’t mean that it’s the best product for you.”

So how can consumers make sure their serum is the right choice?

Start With Proper Use

“I always advise my patients to apply vitamin C serum as part of their morning skin care regimen due to the antioxidant benefits and the synergistic UV-protection vitamin C adds when layered under your sunscreen,” Casey said.

To receive the full benefits of vitamin C, consumers should also make sure they are applying their skin care products in the right order.

“Vitamin C is an active ingredient, so you want to apply this to dry skin before any moisturizers or oils which can act as a barrier to the penetration of the active ingredients,” Casey advised.

It is also important to avoid applying vitamin C with other active ingredients such as retinol, AHAs and BHAs. And when it comes to those with sensitive skin, it’s best to go low and slow with vitamin C.

“If a vitamin C serum is causing redness, irritation or inflammation, the timing of application should be adjusted accordingly by [decreasing] the frequency of application to once or twice a week,” Casey said.

Consistency, Consistency, Consistency

And as with all good things, patience is rewarded when it comes to vitamin C. Don’t expect any overnight changes.

“Vitamin C’s job is to boost collagen synthesis which your skin should feel firmer after 28 days,” King said. “It also brightens skin, and you should begin to see a difference within 28 days.”

Taking before and after pictures is another helpful way for consumers to get proof of whether a particular serum is a winner or a dud for their skin.

“I tell patients to take a photo before treatment and then compare a photo, with consistent angles and lighting, three months later,” Casey said.

And when in doubt, it’s always a good idea to consult a professional.

“Consulting with a dermatologist or medical skin care professional can provide further guidance and monitoring on changes in skin,” Hsu said.

Odor And Color

As vitamin C is well known for its instability, it’s important to keep an eye — and a nose — out for any changes in the serum’s color or smell from the time it was opened.

“Vitamin C serum should be a clear liquid; when it turns orange/brown, that’s a sign that the serum has oxidized and has lost some of its efficacy,” Casey said.

Some customers may notice a “burning rubber” or a “hot dog” smell coming from their vitamin C serums. Does a “burning rubber” smell from a vitamin C serum mean that it’s working? Or does it mean it has expired?

“Vitamin C in its pure state does not have a detectable smell, but the addition of a stabilizing agent, such as ferulic acid, can render a burnt smell,” Casey said. “Given that vitamin C is very unstable on its own, the benefit of adding a stabilizing agent, such as ferulic acid, enhances the efficacy of the vitamin C active ingredient.”

If the serum uses ferulic acid, this specific “burning rubber” smell can mean that it’s “working” in the sense that it is preventing the vitamin C from oxidizing. However, if a vitamin C product has a noticeably bad smell ― especially if the product didn’t smell that way when it was first opened — it may be time to throw it out.

“Any noticeable odor should be an indication that the vitamin C product has expired or degraded,” Hsu said.

Want some stellar picks from dermatologists and reviewers? These are the vitamin C serums they recommend.

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iS Clinical Super Serum Advance
Sr. Shopping Writer Lourdes Uribe is absolutely devoted to this powerful vitamin C serum. Her esthetician recommended adding it to her lineup, and now she can’t imagine her skin without it. It's an oil-based vitamin C-rich serum that not only has the potential to help reduce typical signs of aging like fine lines, wrinkles and sun damage, but can help to reduce scarring as well. While it costs a pretty penny, she thinks it’s absolutely worth it. A little goes a long way, making it less of a financial burden than one might imagine. It’s definitely worth the splurge.

Promising review: "Love this stuff. It might be a tad expensive, but it has done wonders for my skin to even it out and make it so smooth. Lines seem to have almost vanished (I’m 57). I have sensitive skin and this was not harsh, nor did it break out my skin. VERY happy with this product and would recommend this to anyone with sensitive skin who wants their skin to feel soft and look radiant. I get SO many compliments on my skin. Have been using for 5 months and will continue to do so.” — Kindle customer
Tatcha Violet-C Brightening serum
This serum has an very high 20% concentration of vitamin C, plus mild fruit AHAs to act as gentle exfoliators and Japanese Angelica root extract that softens, smooths and helps to counterbalance and enhance the effects of vitamin C.

Promising review: "This is the only serum I’ve ever used during the day that truly makes a difference. I have really sensitive skin but I can use this everyday and I actually see my skin brighter, smoother, less redness and over all improvement. I used the whole bottle before writing a review but honestly 2 weeks in I saw noticeable results. I’m scared to switch to any other vitamin c serum now!" — iz95
Dr. Dennis Gross 15% Vitamin C Firm & Bright serum
There are tons of vitamin C serums on the market, but this pick previously recommended by Dr. Brendan Camp, a board-certified dermatologist in New York, is a powerful, effective option for anyone looking to amp up their routine. It can help tackle sun damage, dark spots, lines, dullness and more.

"Vitamin C serums neutralize the free oxygen radicals, which are unstable oxygen molecules that can damage cellular structures like DNA, lipids, and proteins. Used on a regular basis, they can also help brighten skin and reduce the appearance of sunspots," Camp said.

Promising review: "Road to clear skin. I agree that this product have a strong scent but it goes away after applying moisturizer. However this is one of the best vitamins c I’ve used. It’s been 1 month, my dark spots are fading quickly. Make sure to use sunscreen. This product works! Won’t stop buying." — Jaiivee
SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic acid serum
If you're into skin care, you've likely heard people sing the praises of this cult-favorite serum, and with good reason. The SkinCeuticals C E Ferulic serum has been hailed by dermatologists for its ability to help lighten fine lines, firm skin, provide environmental protection and brighten a dull complexion. The stabilized formulation means all ingredients are working at the peak of their powers, in tandem with each other.

Promising reviews: "I have tried many vitamin c serums and keep coming back to this one. It’s been highly effective on my skin, and while it’s pricey the results have been well worth it. One thing I have especially noticed is that it helps fade my acne scars pretty quickly." — GG

"When I first bought this, I was so apprehensive because of the price. But it really is amazing! You have to use it consistently for a few weeks to see the results, but it’s worth it. My skin has never looked better. A little goes a long way, so the price is worth it." — Emma
Revision Skincare C+ Correcting Complex 30%
This award-winning serum from Revision Skincare is an excellent way to get smooth, glowy and even skin. It helps to support the skin's natural production of vitamins C and E and can help to correct the effects of sun damage and free radicals.

Promising review: "I found my miracle. It really works for me! For years like I mean forever I have been searching for the right product. I have very sensitive skin and I suffer from hyperpigmentation. I even went to a dermatologist and nothing worked. I saw this on Instagram and I thought to give it a try. It was very expensive but I was desperate. And now I don’t regret it. I bought the facial wash and I apply this treatment every night. The amazing thing is that, I saw the difference within a week. Now I am slowly buying other products and would create a routinely regimen for my face." — Verified user
Paula's Choice C15 Vitamin C Super Booster
This powerful serum from Paula's Choice is formulated with 15% vitamin C, vitamin E, ferulic acid, hyaluronic acid and peptides that can help to fade away sun damage and hyperpigmentation as well as post-acne scarring while moisturizing and smoothing the skin.

Promising reviews: "Products gives a good glow, notice a difference when I forget to apply in the morning. I have very sensitive skin and this product does not irritate my skin at all. Apply a SPF after, always." — tdkh

"Great addition to skincare routine. This is my first time using vitamin C and it’s been almost three weeks since I started. I have dry skin and adding this to my everyday routine has been a game changer. My skin looks brighter and looks/ feels smoother." — gigiatsephora
Maelove Glow Maker antioxidant serum
Considered by many skin care enthusiasts to be an affordable alternative to SkinCeuticals' cult-fave serum above, this option from Maelove is full of vitamins C and E, ferulic acid and hyaluronic acid. It provides long-lasting hydration as well as all the benefits that come along with a powerful vitamin C serum.

Promising reviews: "So many c serums out there, but Maelove is wonderful. I stopped using SkinCeuticals. Maelove is less expensive and the serum does give me a clean tight glow." — Kay B.

"My derm recommended this product and even he was impressed! Works just as well if not better than that very expensive brand we all know. I'm thrilled that I found maelove!!" — Erica M.

"Glowing skin. I love the texture! I noticed my skin looked a lot more alive, less dull and brightened within a couple of days. I use this consistently every morning after I wash my face." — Danielle K.
Kiehl's vitamin C eye serum
Don't sleep on the power of eye serums! Camp is also fan of this particular antioxidant-rich option from Kiehl's, which is as hydrating as it is effective at improving the look of lines and discoloration.

"Eye creams and serums maintain and help prevent the delicate skin around the eyes from showing your true age," Camp told us previously. "Products with vitamin C or retinol are effective for encouraging collagen production and minimizing the appearance of wrinkles."

Promising reviews: "Perfect Hydrating and Moisturizing Serum. This is the perfect serum for me because prepares my skin to put on my eye cream. It is so hydrating and moisturizing. Love it and I wish I had found it before. I don't have dark circles, so I don't know about this matter." — Zabrina
The Inkey List
The Inkey List 15% vitamin C and EGF serum
Ideal for sensitive skin or those who are only just beginning to dabble in active ingredients, this serum from The Inkey List is as powerful and effective as it is gentle. Vitamin C and plant-derived epidermal growth factors can help smooth, brighten and tighten the appearance of skin.

Promising review: "Wonderful for Brightening. I have very sensitive skin, and have tried countless vitamin c serums. This is the only one that doesn’t burn when I apply, and leave my skin covered in red bumps. My skin looks brighter since I’ve started using this, and more plump. I feel like I can get away with wearing way less makeup on a daily basis since starting this." — miaaaa96
U Beauty
U Beauty Resurfacing Compound
If you're more interested in a powerful blend as opposed to a serum that is primarily focused on vitamin C, try this compound from U Beauty. It fights free radicals, sun damage, dullness and more with both retinol and vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, mandelic acid and much more to leave skin soft, smooth and vibrant. It's definitely a significant splurge, but reviewers say it's worth it.

Promising review: "I've been using so many products on my skin for years to help with redness, pores, texture, fine lines... You name it and nothing has ever come close to this resurfacing compound!!!! It has everything you need in one bottle. The price is definitely worth it without having to get Botox or pricey fillers!!" — Angel B.
Glow Recipe
Glow Recipe Guava vitamin C dark spot serum
Looking for a silky, gel-like serum that won't feel heavy or sticky but is still full of all the aforementioned doctor-recommended ingredients? You might want to give this Glow Recipe serum a shot. It's formulated with five kinds of vitamin C, guava, tranexamic acid and ferulic acid that can leave skin more glowy and even.

Promising review: "I wear this everyday, my face looks brighter, healthier and I can tell its made a big difference on my skin. I have acne prone skin and lots of sun damage. Which helped both. Only thing that needs to improve is the bottle of the serum. By the time I'm done with it I have to take out the pump and hit the bottle on my hand lol. same goes with the eye guava eye serum bottle." — Jaqueline G.
Ilia C Beyond Triple serum SPF 40
I had to throw this pick into the mix myself, because it's perfect for those just starting to dip their toes into skin care. It's a multitasking serum that is full of delicious active ingredients recommended by dermatologists, like vitamin C and niacinamide, while also functioning as both an SPF and a foundation, adding a touch of color to the skin.

Promising review: "One of my favorite Ilia Products. I love subbing this out for the Super Serum Skin Tint a couple of times a week, especially during the summer or on days when I just want very light coverage. It gives your skin a glowy radiance and an extra dose of vitamin C. A little goes a long way. I find that when I wear Beyond C, I end up wearing less make-up because it provides such a natural, healthy and fresh look. I just combine it with brow gel and lip oil. It also saves me from needing a vitamin C serum those days!" — Summer
Drunk Elephant C-Firma Fresh day serum
You really can't go wrong with Drunk Elephant. The brand uses high-quality ingredients that users love, regardless of which product it might be. This serum includes vitamin C, ferulic acid, and vitamin E, all of which balance each other out and can improve uneven skin tone, fine lines and wrinkles and brighten the skin while fighting free-radicals.

Promising review: "My absolute favorite. I love this serum so much! My skin feels so much nicer after I use it! If you’re looking for a product that makes your skin feel smooth, firmer, and add a glow then this is amazing! (Great for anyone)." — smstew
Sunday Riley C.E.O. 15% Vitamin C Brightening Serum
I'm a huge Sunday Riley lover and it's not surprising to me that this serum is a fan favorite. This powerful and high-quality vitamin C serum was specifically formulated to target dark spots, signs of aging and more, leaving skin smooth and soft. Glycolic acid, a BHA, provides chemical exfoliation while stabilizing the vitamin C, refining and supporting the skin's luminosity.

Promising review: "I purchased the smaller size to try this out, and decided to purchase the regular size. My skin responds really well to this product. It doesn't sting and makes my skin appear refreshed and hydrated. More like a lightweight lotion than a serum, in my opinion, but I really like that about it." — Meena
First Aid Beauty 10% vitamin C brightening serum
Perfect for people with sensitive skin or for someone who wants to start with a lower dosage, this 10% vitamin C serum includes vitamin E to soften the skin and squalane to deeply hydrate and soften.

Promising reviews: "I've been using this product for a month now, and OMG hello bright skin! My skin has never looked so bright & glowy! This is a MUST HAVE in your collection! My sensitive skin needs gentle products, and FAB is my joy grail skin, body & haircare brand!" — makeupandmomlif

"Love this serum. It’s so light and soaks in right away. Lays great under moisturizer and makeup! Skin instantly looks brighter!" — Bri092918

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